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Mitt Romney the third politician to call on Pittsburgh this month

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign stop in Pittsburgh on Thursday marked the third visit by a presidential candidate in three weeks.

They don't call this the Keystone State for nothing.

Shifting demographics of Pennsylvania's vast and fickle electorate give Republicans hope they can capture the state's 20 electoral votes for the first time since the 1980s. Democrats are counting on their registration advantage and a populist message to win the state again, offsetting Republican victories in less-populous western and midwestern states.

"There is no doubt about it: in terms of raising cash and courting votes, this region is going to be ground zero for both parties for the next 13 months," said Robert Gleason, chairman of the state Republican Party.

Romney spoke at Consol Energy Center in Uptown for two closed-door fundraisers. His visit follows a pitch by President Obama for his doomed jobs bill at a South Side union hall on Oct. 11, and Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry's energy speech at the U.S. Steel Irvin Works in West Mifflin three days later.

"Places like suburban Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are fertile ground for political contributions, so expect presidential candidates to work the state hard for money," said Chris Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College.

Presidential campaigns raked in $34.5 million in 2008, including $18.2 million for Obama and $5.4 million for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

George H.W. Bush was the last Republican to carry Pennsylvania, when he beat Michael Dukakis by 2.3 percentage points in 1988.

During the decades that followed, Republicans lost reliable strongholds in collar counties around Philadelphia as affluent, college-educated residents shifted toward Democrats. In Western Pennsylvania, Republicans picked up culturally conservative voters in rural counties that unions once dominated and gained supporters in Pittsburgh suburbs, said Kevan M. Yenerall, professor of political science at Clarion University.

"The southwest part of the commonwealth remains one of the key swing regions in the state and, as always, will be hotly contested," Borick said.

Gov. Tom Corbett last year eked out a slim but surprising 460-vote victory in Allegheny County over his Democratic opponent, County Executive Dan Onorato, despite a 2-1 Democratic registration advantage. Democrats want those voters back. State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn of Millvale yesterday made a populist appeal to voters.

"It doesn't get any more middle class than Western Pennsylvania," Burn said. Adopting some of the rhetoric of Occupy Pittsburgh protesters, Burn said Romney tailored his policies to benefit "that 1 percent of the elite. We need a leader who stands up for the 99 percent."

About 25 protesters picketed and chanted outside Romney's event, heckling some donors and engaging others in conversations about class and capitalism.

Democrats endured bruising elections last year, when Republicans captured most of the state's U.S. House seats, a U.S. Senate seat, the governor's mansion and the state House.

"(Democrats) know they have a problem and they know that the Republican nominee stands a strong chance to win," Gleason said. But he doesn't underestimate the strength of Obama in campaign mode. "Even though we became a red state last year, this is a presidential race, and they are driven by different emotions."

Obama won Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points in 2008, attracting 620,000 more votes than McCain. Yet Burn said past success isn't necessarily a prelude for his party.

"In 2008, all we had to do was take the campaign boat out into the water and the voters jumped on board," Burn said. "Things this time obviously are different."

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